Disney is on a quest to reimagine its most popular animated features for the modern day, with vividly lifelike (photorealistic) computer animation and the occasional human being. Where once was ink and paint, are now pixels and people.
As the likes of Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book and Aladdin have shown, one thing that remains at the heart of the new versions of these classic film stories is the music and songs. So, while things might look quite different, the sound of the films is familiar – albeit with a few necessary tweaks and additions.
As with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, the producers of The Lion King knew it made sense to bring back the original composer and songwriters to give their respective works a lick of paint. And so it is that Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer returns to the pridelands along with Sirs Elton John and Tim Rice, not to mention South African singer and composer Lebo M, plus an additional voice in the shape of Beyonce.
Zimmer is said to have agreed to the return after he ‘rediscovered’ the music whilst on his recent concert tours and wanted the recording to capture the joy of the live experience. It’s true to say that there is a celebratory zeal to the performances by the orchestra, singers and instrumentalists.
Zimmer’s Oscar was actually for his original Lion King score (awarded at the ceremony in 1995), the same year the original soundtrack album went 10x Platinum. Both things are representative of the impact and popularity of the original film’s music, which plays a hugely important role. From the first frame and that now iconic opening sequence, featuring Lebo M’s inimitable vocal, to the last, it's a story carried by music.
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‘The Circle of Life’, written by Elton John and Tim Rice’, is one of a handful of set piece songs the pair wrote for the film. ‘I Just Can’t Wait to Be King’, ‘Hakuna Matata’ and ‘Can You Feel The Love Tonight’ – which won the songwriters an Oscar – remain hugely popular and are all present and correct in the new film, albeit with new vocalists in the roles. ‘Be Prepared’, evil Scar’s somewhat camp call to arms in the first film, is perhaps most changed, having a bit more bite now. It always was the song you’d skip on that chart-topping album…
One song, ‘The Morning Report’ was axed from the original film, and went unrecorded. It was reinstated, however, when the film was released on DVD, though with different actors singing the roles. Suffice to say it stood out like a sore paw.
Hans Zimmer’s original score remains one of his very best, a masterful amalgamation of African rhythm, orchestral power and comic appeal (where required). He retains his main themes in the new film, but due to additional scenes and a reworking of more familiar moments he has necessarily had to revise, add to and re-record his 1994 work.
The original film was so inspiring to Zimmer, Lebo M and the musicians that they wrote more material than could be used, so Disney agreed to a follow-up album. Rhythm of the Pridelands was released in 1995 and went platinum in 1998, with its music and songs thrown into the mix when Disney decided to mount a Broadway show of the story.
One of Disney’s biggest theatrical successes, The Lion King as seen and heard on stage is a spectacle. Musically it, too, retains much of Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs, portions of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music from that sequel album composed by Zimmer, Lebo M, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin - including the song 'He Lives In You', which also comes full circle and appears in the new film.
In 2014, to mark the 20th anniversary of the original film, Disney released an expanded soundtrack album as part of it’s brilliant ‘Legacy Collection’. It featured an additional 30 minutes of music, mainly from Zimmer’s score.
Then there are the film sequels that were released on home video… The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride featured an original score by Nick Glennie-Smith (who had conducted the original film’s score), while The Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata (aka The Lion King 1 and a half) saw music by Don Harper.
It’s Hans Zimmer’s graceful, thrilling and full-blooded music for that original film that sticks in the memory, though. Would it be as perfect without Lebo M’s influence? Who knows? But one thing is for certain, it has become a modern masterpiece of movie music.
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The Lion King - Live in Prague...
Hans Zimmer, feat. Lebo M
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.